The Legend of Heroes – Trails to Excellence
PSP, PS Vita, PS3, PC
As an avid PSP and JRPG fan, it was only a matter of time before I dove into the Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. Originally released in Japan during 2004 for the PC, it was ported to PSP and localised by Xseed much later in 2011. Despite not meeting initial sales goals for Xseed, Trails in the Sky won over critics and audiences alike with its fleshed-out characters, intriguing story and the depths of worldbuilding that developer Nihon Falcom has incorporated into their long-running series. After spending a year or so putting it off, I eventually imported a limited-edition copy from the UK at a bargain price.
My initial experience after starting the game was a little rocky, given the severely dated graphics and slow burn of the first few hours. Persevering, the charms of the world began to reveal themselves through both the excellent translation work by the team at Xseed and the attention to detail Falcom had incorporated into many aspects of the game world. Taking place in the kingdom of Liberl, Trails in the Sky (or TiTS, as fans jokingly refer to it) centres around Estelle and Joshua Bright, adopted siblings training to become members of the Bracers, an organisation which tasks itself with assisting citizens and maintaining peace around the kingdom. However, political machinations between factions vying for control over emerging Orbal technology threaten to engulf all involved. While this sounds extremely melodramatic, the game manages to outgrow many of the JRPG clichés it presents through rich characterisation of both playable characters and NPCs, all of whom are overflowing with dialogue that changes following each story beat. Perhaps the greatest flaw of the story in Trails in the Sky is the lack of any resolution – the game finishes on an absolutely torturous cliffhanger which wouldn’t be resolved until the release of Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter towards the end of 2015, an extraordinary length of time to try and avoid spoilers from a game that had released in Japan nearly a decade earlier. With Trails in the Sky the 3rd reaching the West for PC earlier this year, it’s a great time to get started on this particular trilogy of games.
I say without reservation that over the course of a few games, the generically titled Legend of Heroes quickly became one of my favourite JRPG series of all time, thanks in no small part to the more recently developed Trails of Cold Steel trilogy. With a much shorter gap between Japanese and Western release dates, Trails of Cold Steel represents a serious attempt by developer Nihon Falcom to break ground outside of Japan. This didn’t come without some hitches, however; Trails of Cold Steel comes several titles after Trails in the Sky, meaning that Xseed had to skip other entries in the series and move straight up to the most current, released on both PS3 and Vita. While this makes sense as a business decision given the ageing PSP hardware, for longtime fans of series without Japanese comprehension skills it requires playing out of order.
I’m very glad I decided to trust Falcom’s judgement on the matter and jump ahead to play Trails of Cold Steel, because it is one of the most enjoyable RPG’s I’ve played in a long time. As with TiTS, while some elements found in Trails of Cold Steel are outright clichés – the fantasy setting, a group of teenagers working to ‘save the world’ – the level of character and worldbuilding is exceptional once again. To push these elements further, Trails of Cold Steel seems to be one of the few JPRGs in the past decade to take on board some of the elements that made Persona 3 so well regarded, incorporating school-based routines and relationship building with more open sections of exploration and battling. With the second entry in the Cold Steel trilogy still to play (I’ve been replaying the first game to create a ‘perfect’ save file) and a third releasing on the PlayStation 4 in Japan this September, now is a great time to jump on board and give this series a shot. For players on PC, you’re in for an extra special treat as Xseed are releasing Trails of Cold Steel on the 2nd of August, complete with extra voiced dialogue and a host of graphical and performance overhauls making it the definitive version of the game at this point. If you’re a JRPG fan with any platform the Trails games are available on, I recommend giving them a go. After all, I didn’t award Trails of Cold Steel my best game of 2016 for no reason.